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Building for the future

How Deryl McKissack, president and CEO of design and construction management firm McKissack & McKissack, is reimagining public and private spaces for the post–COVID-19 world.

This interview is part of the Inside the Mind of the CEO series, which explores a wide range of critical decisions faced by chief executives around the world.

In the late 1990s, Deryl McKissack visited a high school in Washington, DC, to speak to the student body about her career. At the start of that decade, she had founded her architecture, engineering, and construction management firm in the U.S. capital, inspired by her family’s 115-year-old business. When she walked into one of the school’s restrooms after her talk, McKissack was struck by its deteriorated state. She thought about the young women walking through those doors every day and the effect these conditions could have on their self-confidence — and she realized her purpose as a leader was to improve lives through building and design.

Today, as president and CEO, McKissack sits at the helm of a leading design and construction services group with US$30 million in annual revenue. McKissack & McKissack has offices in Baltimore, Chicago, DC, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Austin, with 150 employees managing $15 billion in construction projects and serving customers across the U.S. and around the globe. The firm, renowned for such landmark projects as the George H.W. Bush Library, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, has been doing steady business during the pandemic as commercial and public organizations rethink buildings and infrastructure for the post-pandemic world.

The challenges McKissack has faced as the founder of a minority-owned business have instilled an ingenuity and resilience that cascade through her company’s culture, and that have been critical in addressing the evolving needs of businesses and individuals for the physical spaces they inhabit. She sat down for a Zoom interview with strategy+business to discuss how McKissack & McKissack is adapting to the pandemic’s disruption both internally and as an industry leader.

S+B: Your firm has a unique origin story. Can you tell us about that?
My family’s history in America goes back to 1790, when my great-great-grandfather came here as a slave. He was a builder. He made bricks. He passed this trade down to my great-grandfather, who became a master carpenter, who passed his trade down to my grandfather. My grandfather and his brother started our family business in Tennessee in 1905, making us the oldest African-American architectural firm in the country. In 1922, they became the first licensed Black architects in the Southeast United States. But what put them on the map was the Tuskegee Air Force Base that they designed and built during World War II.

I’m an identical twin, and one of three girls. From the age of 6, I remember going to the office with my twin sister. My father, a registered architect, would prop us up on the drawing boards. He taught us how to draw details, do schedules, use Leroy lettering [a mechanical lettering device], and make legends. He started using the designs we made by the age of 12 for his real work with customers. When we went to college, he met with the deans of the architecture and engineering schools to design a curriculum just for us, enabling us to graduate in both fields. The plan was that we would work in corporate America and bring the best practices back into the family business.

But then it hit me that I wanted my own little red wagon. I just had this burning passion to see if I could do it. Could I start a company with $1,000? I’d never even written a business plan, so I bought a book on how to do it. Although this is my own company, I consider it an extension of my heritage. Design and architecture are in my blood.

S+B: As the founder and CEO of your business, how do you view your purpose?
Our company’s mission has changed over the years. Initially, I felt if I just followed my ancestors’ approach to be a trustworthy partner who under-promised and over-delivered, I would be successful. But about 15 years into this business, I realized my purpose had to go beyond our own organization’s success.

I remember touring a DC school — the city probably had one of the most dilapidated school systems in the country — and seeing the girls’ bathrooms, which were a mess. Half the toilets were off the wall. The privacy partitions were down. The mirrors were so foggy you could barely see yourself, and the lights were dim.

At that time, we were working on some new prisons, which looked much better than these schools. I thought: How can wonderful women graduate with a sense of dignity and self-respect under these conditions? That’s when it hit me that our mission had to go beyond bricks and mortar. It had to be about enhancing lives through design and construction.

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Today, we have the largest K–12 construction management program in the country. Much of our mission involves making the structure of the buildings more sustainable, using metrics that tell us how much energy is being generated by the geothermal system, for example. These tools, which are visible to the students in these schools, are used as teaching opportunities, as educators incorporate the metrics into courses. We have heard that this has inspired some of them to pursue STEM or engineering careers. Some of the other program management work we are doing now involves COVID-19 mitigation, including upgrading schools’ HVAC systems for better, safer air filtration.

S+B: Of all the challenges you’ve faced since starting your business, the COVID-19 crisis must be like no other. How have the events of 2020 impacted your business and your industry?
Our industry has not been as badly impacted as others because early on, construction was deemed essential. Of course, restrictions have varied state by state, but our clients provided written statements that we were essential, enabling members of our construction teams to conduct business even as everyone else was sheltering in place.

We’ve been going full speed ahead. Our requests for proposals have increased sharply, and we now have more than 70 active projects, including three 2021 [presidential] inaugural viewing stands that cannot wait. Of course, some of our commercial office space projects have been put on hold.

S+B: What is your company’s outlook for the next few years?
Our customer base is 50/50 government and private. A decade ago, 85 percent of our portfolio was government, with federal, state, and municipal projects. But our board pushed us to add more balance to our portfolio, which has greatly improved our outlook. Initially, I was concerned that the public projects would lag as a result of a reduced tax base, but the shortfall has been nowhere near as big as expected. Meanwhile, so many of the projects we are working on are massive, multiyear, and already funded.

Some of our government clients are also seeing opportunities and want to accelerate the work. Airports, for example, are doing more infrastructure work, taking advantage of the relatively empty spaces. We’re going through a massive renovation at Reagan National Airport, and the low traffic has been a huge help.

On the private side, business is also robust. We’re seeing continuous demand, particularly in the energy sector, so I’m very optimistic about our near and intermediate future. Energy companies make up about 50 percent of our commercial clients — and the need for reliable and safe energy continues.

Of course, we don’t know where the pandemic is going to go. We may all have to shut down. But even though the construction and design industries are usually not this insulated from downturns, as of now we’re a lifeline. We’re keeping the economy going. I haven’t seen any indication that this won’t remain the case. And the next administration will have to pass an infrastructure bill to put America back to work again, so we’ll be busy.

S+B: How has COVID-19 impacted your approach to public spaces?
Design and engineering are constantly evolving with the times. After 9/11, for example, we were focused on security. Some government buildings ended up looking like fortresses. As time went on, people realized they wanted the security, but they didn’t want to see it. So, we adapted, camouflaging bollards by embedding them into hillsides, for example. For the MLK Memorial, the bollards are benches. And we built a steel wall into ditches disguised by big grassy mounds, so nothing can get through.

In the same way, COVID-19 is going to influence the design world. I’m not yet sure what that looks like exactly. I know it involves spacing and touchless features. Workplace health, safety, and hygiene expertise will play a larger role in design. Public spaces are going to be a work in progress for some time. Spaces can’t be permanently reconfigured until we know more about COVID-19 and we have a handle on the efficacy of treatments and vaccines. Federal guidelines aren’t even solid on this, and we’ll need to continue to make rigorous hazard assessments.

Still, we know that offices will need better HVAC systems to increase airflow, and more square feet of personal space per individual. They will have more touchless technology, with more cordoning off using plexiglass barriers and physical distance. Break spaces, lunchrooms, and washrooms are hot zones that will require creative work-arounds. Restrooms will need occupant limits with sensor fixtures, including touchless sanitizers. Traffic flow will need to be marked off, and passageways widened. Doorknobs will need to be removed from executive offices.

Even when we get a vaccine, the anxiety isn’t going away. I believe many of these measures will be permanent. Public health officials are speculating that COVID-19 will be endemic, with sporadic repeats thanks to globalization. Of course, we will have more elegant solutions for creating separation. I was recently on a panel for the Center for Innovation in the Design and Construction Industry, and the ideas were inspiring. We will be using drones for tasks like inspecting and documenting construction jobsites, so people won’t have to walk through them — especially when it is dangerous to do so. COVID-19 is causing a giant technological leapfrog into more futuristic spaces.

S+B: How has your experience during the pandemic shaped the way you think about the workplace?
I am old school. I always felt that if people were not in the office, they wouldn’t be accountable, and productivity would go down. And we have beautiful offices! Right before COVID-19, we’d invested in expensive furniture from Italy to create intimate spaces where people could meet over coffee, which of course isn’t happening now.

COVID-19 is going to influence the design world; it is causing a giant technological leapfrog into more futuristic spaces.”

When the lockdowns happened, I was in Miami on a Sunday night ahead of a critical meeting. My COO called and said we would have to do it virtually. I hadn’t realized we’d invested a lot in IT systems and firewalls over the previous two years, so setting up this new way of working was like flicking a switch. Everyone was on laptops from home, but we were all easily connected.

I’ve since done a complete 180. I didn’t sleep that first week of lockdown, worrying about how we were all going to communicate and maintain our momentum. But by Friday evening, I was shocked to realize that everyone was just as productive and, as time wore on, even more so. We didn’t have to get dressed in the morning, do the commute into DC, Chicago, L.A. All that time we wasted in the car is now being spent on our computers.

Of course, that also means we are “on” 24/7. I kind of miss those days of flying from DC to Los Angeles when I could set my phone to airplane mode. I still worked during the flight, but without the constant interruptions of text messages.

S+B: Will this way of doing business continue beyond the pandemic?
We’re going to emerge with some type of hybrid, depending on the various functions of a business. I have already had one major client tell me that 80 percent of its staff will not be going back to the office, so we are redesigning that corporation’s physical spaces to match this new reality, with more open spaces and reconfigured areas to minimize traffic and close gatherings.

In our company, design groups like to get together, so we will provide office space for that purpose, but most of our management teams, from finance to marketing, will continue to do business virtually. Except for construction, we’ve gone from a face-to-face, handshake-deal business to a tech-based industry where everything is touchless, using innovative software and AI.

Across industries, far fewer people will be flying to make deals in person, and many offices will get much smaller, by 50 percent or more. In the case of our firm, we’ll likely go back to working in person part-time, for meetings, something that we are beginning to do. But as we take a hard look at the physical conditions of any space for safety, comfort, and compliance, I’d also like to scale our own headquarters to 20 percent of its current capacity.

S+B: Are these trends also changing commercial real estate?
Yes. Developers are going to move toward more residential projects because now people are doing all their living and working at home. Their office is their house, and that trend is here to stay because people like this flexibility. The end result is that the home layout is going to change, and that’s where the opportunity is. We’re also seeing more existing office real estate convert to beautiful living spaces, like the Tribune Tower Residences in Chicago.

S+B: What about the role of sustainability, particularly as we adapt to a post–COVID-19 world?
One of the unintended results of the lockdowns and working from home has been cleaner air and lower emissions. But sustainability has always been a main tenet of everything we do in design, engineering, and construction management. Sustainable building practices involve everything from design and management processes to technologies, machinery, materials, supply chains, and building systems. We’re always looking for ways to improve and have been early adopters of best practices and, in some cases, pioneers as it relates to supply chains, sources, processes, procedures, and design.

We don’t design the systems, but we provide design services and program and project management for various specialty projects. For example, we work on projects that dewater the sludge that comes out of wastewater plants, and we are especially committed to jobs that will get wastewater plants to net zero.

S+B: As you’ve navigated these industry trends, what is the most important lesson you have learned about your organization?
My leaders have all stepped up to the plate, calming the anxiety of our staff. We instituted a series of virtual town halls to talk about how we were all feeling. For the first, I asked everyone to write a gratitude statement, and the results were beautiful. By the second town hall, the George Floyd killing had happened, so I brought in an executive coach to lead a discussion on unconscious bias. People need to have conversations to see if there’s similarity in how they’re feeling, so I implemented “speed talks” where people could go into a virtual room to talk for five minutes. It brought people in Texas face to face with people in L.A., and L.A. folks with colleagues in DC, enabling many who had never met in person to connect.

Even though we were all working remotely, the technology created an intimacy among our workforce that didn’t exist before. We also hired a coach to lead six sessions on being humble, hungry, and smart. We wanted to take the time to build a healthy team, and to figure out how we could come out of this better, and how we could help others as we’re helping ourselves.

S+B: Have you been able to draw from your experiences as a minority business founder and leader?
I’ve had to go through so much adversity, but I just kept working through it, staying on my path. Having experienced discrimination, with people always trying to define me, “no” means absolutely nothing to me. It just made me more determined to set my own direction. A bad storm doesn’t deter me, because I know I can get to the other side. I’ve had to do that so many times.

The diversity of our organization is helping us get through these extraordinary times. Another reason I started my own business was that when I worked for non-minority-owned companies, I never had a seat at the table. But at my company, no one is being dismissed or ignored because of their gender or race. We want to hear from everybody, because getting all those unique perspectives makes a difference and makes us better. We won’t necessarily take everyone’s ideas, but we might put them together to come up with a hybrid. It helps prevent stagnation and groupthink. And this diversity of experiences fosters greater innovation, which leads to greater organizational resilience going forward. It also means we have the ingenuity in-house to adapt to this new world post–COVID-19.

S+B: How can other companies build more diversity and inclusion into their workforce and culture?
The architecture, engineering, and construction industry could do a lot better, especially when it comes to women and minorities in executive and board roles. There have been plenty of panels discussing systemic racism in our industry. But now we need action. We need to close the gap by hiring more women and minorities. Our procurement practices need to promote more minority firms. And we need to work with the underserved communities where we are building. Help those you’re disrupting. Buy lunch and eat in the neighborhood where you are working.

Great leadership is humble. But being humble does not mean you are weak. It means you are so confident that you don’t mind hearing the truth about yourself, so that you can change.

Author profile:

  • Samantha Marshall is a journalist and best-selling book collaborator based in the United States.
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